Head On: Casually Colliding Killer Cars


Head On is an early maze game where you control a car driving around a broken square grid.  Your goal is to navigate the entire grid without getting pulverized by another car, which drives in the opposite direction around the circuit and intentionally tries to navigate itself into the same lane as you.  It's sort of like an extended game of chicken on a race track, except you have to be the chicken because your opponent is actually suicidal.

Fortunately, the track has five lanes and you can change your speed at any time.  Unfortunately, the circuit only has four small gaps where you can switch lanes, so if you get stuck in the same lane as your opponent between these gaps, you're screwed. You do have an initial advantage over your opponent in that you can move up to two lanes at a time, while they're restricted to one.  After the first level, however, the other car gains the ability to switch two lanes at a time.


The AI is only as smart as it needs to be, adjusting its lane whenever it can, so the game's challenge mostly comes down to judging where the other car is going to be when you reach the next gap and adjusting your lane or speed accordingly.  This becomes more difficult as the other car's speed increases because you have less time to react to its movements.  One interesting thing about the game is that outcomes do appear to be repeatable, something that would be unusual for an arcade game.  However, because several speed adjustments are usually required to finish a level successfully, memorizing all of the speed and lane switches is difficult to do in practice.

Much like Breakout, the graphics are fairly minimal, but the concept creates a constant tension that clashes with this simplicity.  In 1979, head-on collisions might have seemed edgy and exciting, but today it seems out of place in a game with such crude graphics.  This is a shame, because there is definitely an elegance to the game design.  For example, watch in this clip (speed x4) as the cars dance their way around the grid:


Almost hypnotic, isn't it?  And yet, the game is always played on a knife's edge, leaving the player little in the mood for appreciating its simple beauty.  There are some interesting ideas here and I imagine a clever indie game designer could make something good out of the concept -- it seems to beg for a release on mobile devices, in particular -- but I can't honestly recommend the original version of the game. 

Comments

  1. I'm pretty terrible at these games. I have Dodge'Em on the 2600, and I'm usually lucky to get past the first level. I'm not even sure if I've ever gotten past the second.

    Safari Rally unwinds the track into a looping straight away and I find that one much easier. The moving animal targets are also a different touch to the gameplay.

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